Adapting Work for Video

Sometimes we tell a story in a different format than video, and then go back with the goal to adapt it for the screen. Of course, the original work could be the product of someone else, but in either case we have to work to change the parameters of the storying without deviating too far from the source. Typically the source material when adapting video is a book or a written short story, but in other cases it could be a theatrical play, a video game, or even another format of video (such as turning a movie into a series). For the purpose of this post, I will assume that we are working with a written-word source.

Straying from the Source

Everyone who watches an adapted video judges it differently. Their reactions depend on their familiarity with and appreciation of the source material, and their expectations for the final product. Almost everyone who criticizes an adapted video will cite the differences from the source material. But from a solely filmmaking stance, this really doesn’t matter. We will need to stray from the source material. The source story was told through the written format. It was told using skill and tricks that only work with the written format. If we were to try and adapt it with strict coherence to the origin, the quality would go down dramatically. We need variance for the sake of the video.

So what should we change and what should we keep the same? There is no magic formula to determine what should be scrapped. Each viewer has a different opinion of an adapted video because each person has a different set of criteria for what’s important in the original story. As those undertaking the adaptation, it is up to us to determine what’s really important.

Find the Best Parts

Obviously we will need to be very familiar with the source material in order to adapt it. Upon the first read-through, certain parts will stand out in our memory. They’ll be the pieces we go looking for when we reading it again. In a case where we also wrote the source material, those pieces will be the building blocks of the story that we planned or envisioned before writing. These parts are the best sections of the source material, and are essentially the most important parts to preserve. When we get to actually writing the script, many pieces of the source material will have to be cut down or removed completely.

Sometimes it can be difficult to determine the best parts, or difficult to narrow the list down to a more manageable amount. A good way to identify these major pieces is to look for what can be easily translated to screen. These are the moments in the source that seem the most cinematic, either through action or another form of storytelling that works well in both mediums. When those important points in the story are simultaneously the points with strong cinematic feeling, the adaptation becomes much easier. Unfortunately, things are rarely that easy.

Once we’ve selected our key moments, we still have to translate them to script form. And although we’ve already decided to keep them in the final video, we might have to go back in and trim up or change parts of our choices to better fit the screen. It’s at this point that we need to have no fear of change. Straying from the source material is inevitable. Through our selection of important moments, we have essentially made a more concise template for the creation of the script. This selection is our new source material.


The main process of adaptation comes with the actual converting from book to script. This means turning description to action notes, turning conversation to lines, turning private thoughts to a more visible example of a character’s emotions. Something is lost with every adaptation, but with enough skill something can be gained to replace it. The goal is to keep that same essence of the original story intact, even if much of what originally accompanied it is absent or has changed.

Dialogue is simple enough to adapt. Many times the exact wording can be taken from the source and applied to the script, but the trouble comes when the inevitable cuts occur. Most written sources, but books especially, can have a much broader scope of events than a short film, movie, or even a show. This will lead to cutting material, and much of that material will include bits of dialogue or entire scenes of exposition. In these cases, we can no longer rely on the exact wording that was used in the source, and instead have to condense and creatively rearrange what our characters say.

But changing what is said and when it is said changes more than just dialogue. It changes the situations around the conversations, and thus the events that occur in the story. This can lead to changes in setting, character roles, and the playing-out of plotlines. This is okay.

Everything that we change will have bigger effects than anticipated. As long as we move forward with the mindset of keeping those essential scenes, and therefore the essential core of the story that we ourselves have defined, then the rest of our changes are ultimately justified. Remember that this is our own specific version of the story, and that anyone else who undertook the work of an adaptation would have their own version as well.

Cutting Material

We have to be creative with what we cut. Everything that is missing will detract further from the original feel of the story. In many cases, the chosen solution is to condense an entire scene into a line or two of dialogue. For those familiar with the source, this can feel like a slap in the face. That’s why it’s important to identify the most important scenes ahead of time.

When we chose those important scenes, we essentially chose which plotline(s) that mattered the most. The place to start cutting is to take out any parts that don’t reflect on the chosen plot(s). These pieces can typically be taken out without any form of reciprocation.

For those scenes that we originally decide to replace with a shorter segment, it’s best to reconsider. Shortening an important part of the story by too much makes it have less impact, especially if it’s among other parts that are obviously more important. Instead of cutting a scene into something as small as a footnote to another scene, try to combine the two scenes. Take the essential action of both and put them together.


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